baby it’s cold outside

“Suzy Wants a Dolly”: Gendered Carols

So my choir started rehearsing our Christmas set last night, and about half-way through we get to a version of “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” that has the following lyrics: “Johnny wants a pair of skates. Suzy wants a sled. Nellie wants a picture book: yellow, green, and red.” Wait a minute! The words I’d always known were: “Johnny wants a pair of skates. Suzy wants a dolly. Nellie wants a story book: she thinks dolls are folly.” It had never occurred to me how the original lyrics were reinforcing a predictable gender binary: boys as active, girls as passive. Though I guess kudos to Nellie for her small act of rebellion…

Sociological Images has more on this norm and how kids are socialized into it through toys, which I’m going to talk more about later this week. For now I just wanted to put together a list of other Christmas carol lyrics that have gendered aspects. For this post, I’m going to focus on secular carols, since I don’t feel I have enough religious knowledge to do justice to an analysis of sacred carols. Keep in mind I’m not saying the lyrics below are inherently bad or harmful; only that we should think about how they subtlely (and sometimes not so subtlely) reinforce gender roles.

  • “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” - I’m with Chloe Angyal on this song, which is about a girl who doesn’t want to spend the night with her guy, who keeps trying to persuade her to stay by ignoring her objections and offering her more alcohol. It was written in 1944 but by today’s standards it’s actually kinda disturbing.
  • “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” – We’re back to the passive/active split with these lyrics: “A pair of hopalong boots and a pistol that shoots/Is the wish of Barney and Ben/Dolls that will talk and will go for a walk/Is the hope of Janice and Jen.”
  • “Santa Baby” - Yes, this is trying to be funny and I don’t think anyone would mistake it for an instruction manual for girls, but  it does reinforce the view that women are just out to get money and expensive things from men.
  • “Up on the Housetop” - More of the same, with “Little Nell” getting a stocking with a doll in it while “Little Will” gets “a hammer and lots of tacks/also a ball and a whip that cracks”.

So if you’re looking for something more alternative and funny, check out this Feminist 12 Days of Christmas at When She Speaks I hear the Revolution.


Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Feminism, Pop Culture 3 Comments